Baaba Maal uses his songs as a vehicle for global unity
Though he has been playing music his entire life and recording with fervor for the past two decades, rhythm and melody are not Baaba Maal's primary focus. These days, the Senegalese singer and songwriter, views his music—along with the worldwide recognition it has brought him—as more of a means to achieving a greater good.
While he is certainly a dedicated musician—he has released roughly one LP each year since he began professionally tracking his tunes in 1989—Maal is also a thinker, a philosopher, a pundit, an organizer and a storyteller. Then again, where he comes from, that is exactly what a musician is supposed to be.
"That's my life," Maal says, speaking in a thick accent from his studio in London. "Since I [was] a boy, everywhere it was music." For Maal, music is about communication, education and making sense of the world around him; it's about bringing people together around a fire and telling stories; it can even be a force for political change. "You always are a storyteller when you are an African musician, especially when you are from West Africa. That is the tradition."
It was with this tradition in mind that Maal set off on his current tour, “Tales from the Sahel: An Evening with Baaba Maal,” caravanning from venue to venue with music journalist Chris Salewicz in tow. When Maal makes a pit stop at the Rio Theatre, he will not simply play songs for the audience. He will tell them a story, interspersing songs with discussions about his homeland, observations on a planet he has traveled extensively, and ideas he has for making this world a better place.
"When you are a musician in Africa, people won't just dance or sing on top of your music," he explains. "They will try to learn something."
And if there is anyone qualified to lead a stimulating discussion, Maal says, it's his traveling companion. Salewicz—a long-time contributing journalist to The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, and London Evening Standard, and author of various rock star biographies—has profiled Maal before.
"He will know how to pull it up from me," Maal says, referring to the journalist's ability to root around in minutia and tease out pertinent information. "We will talk about everything."
Whatever Salewicz and Maal discuss, they will likely touch upon the Senegalese bard's latest record, Television, which explores the increasing role that technology and media play in African culture.
Fascinated by foreign lands and their customs, Maal identifies himself as a "universal citizen." As such, he sees mass media as a largely positive force in the world. He believes television—which is used in the album title both literally and metaphorically, as a representation of mass media on the whole—has the potential to be a very positive influence on the youth of Africa.
"I'm talking about this new television that we have in Africa right now," he says. Through cell phones, computers, and cable TV, the youth of his country are constantly being exposed to new ideas and learning new things. "I'm aware also of the danger of television. It can be used to corrupt."
And so, Maal is striking out on the road to push positive communication. He brings with him his entire repertoire, but will surely pluck many songs from his latest album, which was a musical departure for Maal.
On Television, he worked with the Brooklyn-based trio Brazilian Girls, who play an electronically-driven world disco. That influence is extremely apparent on songs like the album's title track, with its punchy, processed bass line, glitchy synth blips, echoing vocals, and a guitar line that has been cut and pasted to sound more like a sample than a live performance. Yet the entire song, with its bright high life melodies and shuffling conga beats, is unmistakably African.
"It is a musician’s duty to look at the life in the whole world," he says, noting that his travels have afforded him a unique worldview far different from most people in his country. And so, he reasons, "I have to share it."
Being labeled as a "world musician" has been a blessing for Maal, in that he’s had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of artists over the course of his career. Having collaborated with pop, Indian, Cuban and jazz musicians, his sound has become like a cultural melting pot.
His vision for the global community was recently revealed during a lecture he gave at TEDx, a global series of conferences focused on technology, entertainment and design, and organized so people can share "ideas worth spreading.” In his talk about why women are the future of Africa—which serves as the perfect preview of his “Tales from the Sahel” tour—he summarized his beliefs, saying that many women, including his mother, “have to suffer in silence,” and that “injustice is something that people have to fight … to make a better life in Africa.”
If everyone works together, Maal believes that we can create a better world for all. "We need to get the information to the right media to help Africa be connected to the rest of the world," he says. And music can play a major role in that connectivity. "A song represents something," he says. "It's not just entertainment."
Baaba Maal will present “Tales from the Sahel” at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $28/adv, $33/door. 423-8209.
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